A Conversation With Kennedy Odede on COVID-19's Impact on Kenya and Beyond
from Strength Through Peace

A Conversation With Kennedy Odede on COVID-19's Impact on Kenya and Beyond

CFR Senior Fellow for Africa Michelle Gavin interviews Cofounder and CEO of Shining Hope for Communities Kennedy Odede.
A community activist holds a box with donations to be distributed to people in need in Nairobi, Kenya, on April 14, 2020.
A community activist holds a box with donations to be distributed to people in need in Nairobi, Kenya, on April 14, 2020. Baz Ratner/Reuters

Too often, foreign policy conversations that aim to be global in scope lack sufficient attention to African opinions and equities. By 2050, one in four people in the world will be African. From questions of war and peace, the future of capitalism, the viability of democratic governance, and the fate of the climate to the institutional architecture that facilitates international cooperation, the future should be informed by Africans.

In an effort to bring a broad range of perspectives to the CFR community, Senior Fellow for Africa Michelle Gavin spoke with a number of prominent Africans in different fields about their work and priorities. No one person can speak to the incredible diversity of the continent’s opinions and ideas, but our hope is that these dynamic individuals can help enrich readers’ awareness of and sensitivity to African dynamics, and perhaps encourage readers to learn more about their work.

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East Africa

Politics and Government

Many African states are having to write their own playbooks when it comes to responding to COVID-19. Populations that have limited access to sanitation facilities and that are engaged in the informal economy cannot sustain the same kinds of lockdowns that have been deployed elsewhere. Michelle Gavin spoke to Kennedy Odede in mid-April about those challenges, and about what the local, national, and international response to the pandemic looks like on the ground in just such a community.

Kennedy Odede is a renowned community organizer, author, and social entrepreneur. He is the cofounder and CEO of Shining Hope for Communities, a movement providing critical services and support to poor urban communities in Kenya.

What can you tell me about the overall coronavirus situation in Kenya right now?

I look at our number of cases, and then I compare to New York and Italy, but I am also a little confused. The numbers are not going up very fast. But I’m also challenging myself. How many testing kits do we have? So I think that what we are facing now as a country—we don’t have enough testing kits. So many people are not being tested. There is a private company charging the rich $120 for one test. MPs are also being tested for $50. The rest? Not much.

For what it’s worth, lots of Americans can’t get a test either. One of the challenges I’ve been thinking about is how this kind of public health crisis requires a lot of public trust in authority figures to get mass-level cooperation with public health guidance. We have problems with this here, in terms of trust in government, and it’s even more complex in some other places. So for Kenya, who is trusted to give good guidance? Who are the moral authorities whose public health related guidance will be listened to?

That depends. Because of corruption, because of politics, people lose trust. For example, when a minister called on young people to be on the front line, young people responded on social media by making fun of him—“when it comes to jobs, it’s for the old. When it comes to front liners, it’s the youth. You need us to help you, but when you’re giving jobs, you forget about us.” You talk about young people, these are people who are hustlers, people who live in poverty, the majority, who live in the slums.

You have to go to the grassroots. Who do you listen to? You listen to your pastor. You listen to the bishop. You listen to the sheik. You listen to the community organizer. People that you live with, people that you know are there for you. There is no way your faith leader will not be there when there is trouble. They will be there for you, when things are good and when things are bad. Politicians, they are there when they want votes.

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East Africa

Politics and Government

Don’t get me wrong. I believe in policy. But coronavirus is not about the top. Coronavirus is taking you to the ground, it is bottom up. That’s why I had a meeting with the Minister of Health Mutahi Kagwe. The minister was just wanting to listen, interestingly. Asking me, if we do lockdown the country, what is going to happen? And I’m saying no, this thing is tough. People are crying for food. People in Kibera [near Nairobi, Kenya] are saying, I would rather die from coronavirus than die from hunger.

In Africa, there will be a lot of riots and uprising, if this is not dealt with well. In New York, some of your structures and systems are working. But in Kenya, or Sudan, or Ethiopia, I’m telling you—you see some militants going out in South Africa—it’s hitting us hard. When we ignore the informal settlements, because they are not part of the structure, there is a real challenge.

A tremendous challenge. So besides these very concrete realities—people need to get home from work, need adequate transport to do that, need to get food—what else is it that people at the top are not understanding? Are there other elements of dealing with this in places like Kibera that they are just not grasping yet?

Yes. What people at the top do not understand is that they cannot copy New York, Italy, France. We are different. I am happy that the Kenyan government is being careful. But this is exposing the class gap. Even the messaging, from the World Health Organization (WHO) and from the government—and I believe they are well-intentioned—but it makes life look simple. It’s not like everyone lives in a two or three bedroom house, where you can distance yourself, or where you have food in the fridge. When you are making these decisions, you are forgetting that six people are living in a ten by ten room. Outside, there is a pit latrine, and fifty people are using that pit latrine. These people walk for distances just to get clean water. And you are telling them now to pour that water to wash their hands? They will ask you, “where is the water? Bring it!”

Coronavirus is bringing us back to reality. When policies are being made, they are catering to people living in a New York home, an Italian home, a rich Kenyan home. I wish they could think big, and think—how do we handle all these people living below $2 a day? What is their message? It is simple. We have trucks, can we bring clean water to this community. I don’t want to be too radical, but if you ask me the truth, but I think the Kenyan government should be thinking about cash transfers. Pay them to keep life going. Pay them to stay in the house. And have community health volunteers, who are getting something, going door to door, checking and testing in the slums. Have them going to the churches, mosques, schools, working with them to establish isolation rooms here in the community. Provide food. I think right now we need practical solutions.

That’s a really interesting point around a mass mobilization that reflects the reality on the ground. In thinking about these questions of trust, or understanding conditions, what about misinformation? I ask with all humility, because there is plenty of misinformation in my country—confused conspiracies about people stealing masks, or this being a Chinese bioweapon—you name it, someone here believes it and has found a platform to shout about it. Are you seeing something similar in your community? What are the myths floating around?

Truth be told, your country is also misleading us. When the country that we respect a lot as the superpower is telling people, no, no don’t worry about this thing—you saw it also in the UK with Boris Johnson telling everyone he shakes hands. . .if that is the UK and the United States, what do you think will happen in the slums? The slum people also make their myths. For the slum people, it was “this is a disease for white people; we cannot catch it.” Then they thought it was those who travel who would bring the disease—those who have a good life are the ones the disease is going to attack.

They also have some sense. I was talking to some young people, who said, “Kennedy, we live with sewage. We live with HIV/AIDS. We live with TB. With live with cholera. We don’t die. You think corona can shake us?” They call it the flu of white people.

So what do you do? Even now, because many people don’t trust the government, when they hear that there is a case, they say “no, they are lying. They want money from WHO and the World Bank.”

It takes people like us, community based grassroots organizations, to say—look, we have been helping you get clean water, helping you get education. So when we say this thing is real, we are serious. We change the story. We are telling you now, wash your hands. And we know that there is no water in Kibera, so what are we going to do for you? Water truck. So water is there. No complaints that we are not doing enough. Sending our trucks, people are washing their hands, giving food as we can. So yes, it’s about trust.

I’m curious to see the role of Facebook now. The big thing I see today is WhatsApp, where misinformation is passed. Social media is playing a big role. Right now there is no gathering, so people are connecting on social media.

So how we will do behavior change. Behavior change is based on trust. How will I change if I don’t trust you? And for some there is no trust in government. So then how will the government deliver? We have to help the government.

It’s fascinating that the government is reaching out to people who do have credibility and trust, like yourself.

Yes, they are trying. Our Minister was in the Wall Street Journalone of the deputies trying to shake the world. That’s where we are.

You made an interesting point about the United States being a part of the problem. I don’t pretend to understand the situation of people in Kibera. But I can imagine that focusing on immediate needs takes up most of one’s mind share. But to what extent do you think—when I look at the situation in which the United States finds itself today, I think our own credibility as leaders internationally has got to be irreversibly damaged, both because of misleading statements made by our President, and the fact that we are a mess—we are exposing ourselves as unable to handle this. Do people see that there is a very limited capacity to have an effective public health response in the richest country in the world?

Being honest, national leadership emerges from crisis. The America we respect now came out of the Second World War. The moment I saw what’s happening in the United States–the confusion of their leaders, they don’t know what to say, they are lying—it is what happens when a country is falling. It’s time for America to get their act together. There’s another country, China, coming up. As this crisis hit, we didn’t hear the name Bill Gates—I’m just hearing it now, but we hear the name Jack Ma. It is simple. In those earlier eras, we heard the name Rockefeller doing something for Africa, doing something around the world, when there was a crisis. Because those individuals, they represent that power. Now, with coronavirus, America is on the way down, and China is rising up. Chinese billionaires, their powerful people, are sending help to Ethiopia, to Kenya. Jack Ma is sending help to Europe. Jack Ma is now helping the Governor of New York. Do you hear the name Bill Gates? Do you hear the name [Jeff] Bezos? I’m sorry, but no. And China as a nation, they are advising Kenya and advising other countries, while the countries that we thought were powerful first of all didn’t believe the coronavirus was a true issue, and now they are scrambling.

Something is happening. As an African, in Kenya, I look at what is happening around the world. And let me not lie to you that it is only the President. Americans voted for that person. It’s true, not all, but a big chunk. When a country was falling, you saw it in Europe, some people are scared that’s the end. America now has coronavirus, and I’m looking at the news—people are buying guns! There is fear!

China is showing some leadership. I know they have their own issues, but I have seen leadership in China. I’ve seen how they’ve handled this thing. . . . the world is going through a very interesting thing. The world will not be the same. America will not be respected as they were respected again. America will not be the one to lead the world.

Speaking of leadership, it appears that Ethiopian Prime Minister Abiy [Ahmed] and South African President [Cyril] Ramaphosa are seizing leadership and really pressing Africa’s case internationally, forcing the world to think hard about the economic consequences of this pandemic for Africa. Is that what it looks like in Kenya, and is that welcome?

For us, Ethiopia is really respected. To see Abiy taking charge—of course he won the Nobel Prize—he is teaching us a lot of things. You don’t have to be a dictator to put a country in order. The man has done well. Ramaphosa is coming in with the hat of the head of the African Union (AU). We have to look to him for that. For me, the special man is Abiy. We have been impressed.

I recently called on them in something I wrote, I really pushed them, because if they don’t stand up, we are going to have a problem with our brother from Tanzania. A man who is not doing anything! Nobody is really approaching him directly. But Ramaphosa, Abiy, Kenyatta, with what they are doing, will put him under pressure. There is no way East Africa can have a Tanzania which is saying “no, life goes on, go to church, what’s the problem?” That’s my fear. I support what Abiy and Ramaphosa and other heads of state in Africa are doing by coordinating. I think their endgame is about the debt. They want some of them to be rubbed away, because the countries are hit so hard.

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